On the Cusp of Craftsmanship
I learned how to design and code websites in the early 2000s. I remember going through a few tutorials on W3 Schools and messing around with table-based design, struggling to understand what was going on. Then I stumbled across Designing With Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman and Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm. Both books taught me that designing and building for the web consisted not only of wrangling code, but more importantly, of craftsmanship. Reading Zeldman naturally brought me to A List Apart, which taught me that there was a real community springing up around web design. So many tutorials focused on half-assed solutions, SEO, or marketing practices without paying attention to the craft of building websites. I found myself in awe of these people and resources that were devoted to best practices, actual thinking about craft, and sharing with and growing a community around quality web design. It was a revolution not only for me personally, but for the web community as well.
I think that the email design community is on the cusp of a similar revolution. Recent years have seen a small community form around email design and a growing body of literature about the craft (or black art) of email design. A handful of companies and people are beginning to share their knowledge with the industry and new consumer trends have spawned new email techniques. The email design community feels very much like the greater web design community did in the early to mid 2000s.
This year is an important moment in the email industry. A year where people and companies come together to build a real community around email design and craftsmanship. I think the event that marks that moment is The Email Design Conference thrown by Litmus. And I think two things will happen:
- Discourse around email design techniques will continue to improve, with designers sharing and discussing techniques and best practices in a more open way - improving the practice of email design on a very tangible, day-to-day level.
- The community will continue to grow and people/companies will be more open and involved in it - leading to better events, services, and tooling around email design and marketing.
Craftsmanship and What It Means
This transition allowed web designers and developers to stop worrying about headaches associated with coding sites and instead focus on instilling their work with a sense of craftsmanship. It allowed for real care and thought to be put into products, and more importantly, once crafting web sites was made easier, it allowed for people and businesses to focus on producing great content for these well crafted products. Once the techniques and tooling are built up around an industry, the cognitive load of dealing with bullshit tasks is lifted and more focus can be spent on creating great content and products for that industry - enriching not only the lives of the people working in the industry, but more importantly, the consumers of that industry.
In the email design community, we have seen more and more attention paid to the craft of designing and coding HTML emails. While email marketing has traditionally been the domain of marketers and (sometimes sleazy) business types, companies like Campaign Monitor, MailChimp, and Litmus have been working hard to share information and techniques with the community and users. Both Campaign Monitor and MailChimp have amazing resources and guides that educate designers and users about crafting emails - allowing them to grow their skills and focus on what is important in their campaigns - the content.
A number of well-known email designers and community advocates have been sharing their knowledge, too. Just like in the web design community, the email community now has a few luminaries that are hell-bent on sharing knowledge and improving their craft by not only experimenting with techniques, but discussing them in the open. People like Nicole Merlin, Elliot Ross, Anna Yeaman, Alex Ilhan, Brian Graves, and Becs Rivett are doing an amazing job sharing their knowledge and discussing best practices.
Once there are best practices and refined techniques established, designers and businesses can focus on enhancing their content and message. Hopefully they can take their content from just a sales pitch to providing real value to their lists and building a dialogue and relationship with their subscribers. And while email design still remains a bit of a dark art, with dodgy email clients always frustrating designers, the open sharing of information about techniques and the building of tooling around email design will help the transition from dark art to craft in the future.
A Growing Community
The discussion of craft and technique in email design is finally being aided by a growing community of helpful and honest designers, developers, and companies. This community is what facilitates the refinement of knowledge and best practices, and is wildly important to the industry.
While there has always been a community around email marketing, it has traditionally been relatively small and populated more by marketing types than designers and developers that care about evolving the industry. We have recently seen more people speaking up about email design and trying to mature the practice. Sites like Email Design Review and the Campaign Monitor Forums provide designers with invaluable insights into the theory and process of building great emails.
Another sign of a maturing industry and community is the literature it produces. Authors have written books that both discuss the practical coding of emails as well as the theory behind email marketing. I recently released my own book, Modern HTML Email, that discusses modern email design and development. I know that designers smarter than myself will only add to that body of literature in the future. I look forward to seeing what they have to say.
I believe that the watershed moment for the email design community will turn out to be The Email Design Conferences hosted by Litmus. While there have been a number of email-focused conferences before, most notably ExactTarget Connections and All About Email Live, TEDC13 is the first conference to focus solely on the craft of email design and marketing instead of the services and businesses surrounding it. What is more impressive is that Litmus has refused outside sponsorship so that attendees won’t have to sit through sales pitches and presentations. All of the presenters are industry leaders looking to share their knowledge and talk about craft, not sales people pushing their latest service on email marketers.
The web design community already has dozens of conferences devoted to their craft. TEDC13 feels like the first one really devoted to ours. I’m excited to see what Litmus has in store for the future and hope other organizations take the hint and start pitching in with the community beyond just blasting out whitepapers with statistics and links to their newest services.
What We Need
While it is amazing to see our industry mature, I think a few things are still needed before jumping that hurdle into the realm of craftsmanship. I’ll outline them here:
- Better Tools. While there are a ton of ESPs, metrics services, etc. for email marketing, I think the community needs better tooling built up around the process of designing and coding email. Companies like Litmus and Email on Acid provide excellent services to test out designs and troubleshoot issues, but I would love to see some tools for avoiding those issues in the first place. I hope to see some better frameworks for coding emails, better templates, and some sort of codified best practices for developing emails in the future. It would be amazing to see great WYSIWYG tools for designing emails, and realize that some exist (Campaign Monitor and MailChimp both have really cool builders), but would love to see some standalone products or builders that were more flexible and customizable. For now, I would be delighted to see a few Sublime Text extensions for coding and testing emails. I would love to see more tools for testing on mobile devices, too. I’ve proposed such a tool before. Now I’m waiting to see who builds it.
- More Education. I just released a book. TEDC13 is happening. The Campaign Monitor forums are amazing. But it’s not enough. I really hope that more designers will start up blogs, write their own books, or film some video tutorials. The more we all talk about our craft the better it will get. Even better, the more visible we make our craft - with its problems and solutions - the better we can educate clients about the realities and possibilities of email design and marketing. Discussion is good. More, please.
- A Dedicated Place. Yes, I want more people to start their own projects and sites. But it would also be amazing to have a proper community site where we can all share what we are working on, talk shop, and network. Sure, there is the Email Marketing Guru Google+ site, or the CM Forums, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there was something like Dribbble for email designers? Add in a place to post tutorials and develop our community literature and I am in. I imagine such a place would have to be brand and service agnostic, but if any company wants to start something like that up, I’d love to hear more about it.
A lot of progress has recently been made in the email design community. I think there is still a lot to do. I’m very excited about the future of email design and truly believe that we are witnessing the birth of a real community. In the next year, I think we will see email design transition from the ugly cousin of web design to the respected craft that it should be. It feels very much like the web of 2004 and, if that’s the case, email design looks like it will have a fascinating and bright future.
The question is: how will you help shape it?